As was so eloquently tweeted this morning by SB Nation soccer editor Jeremiah Oshan, the match tonight between the San Jose Earthquakes and New England Revolution is the first meaningless match of the 2011 season. In other words, even though 10 of the 18 teams in MLS will qualify for the playoffs, tonight’s match features two teams that will be clearing out their lockers after October 23rd and not gearing up for some postseason soccer.
However, as another tweeter mentioned earlier in the week, the match tonight in Foxboro is far from meaningless — especially if you take into account what is potentially at stake for both clubs. Unlike in many other leagues around the world, the bottom feeders in MLS need not worry about relegation battles and the consequences of dropping down a division. Instead, the teams languishing outside postseason qualification have something else much more important to play for — the MLS Wooden Spoon.
For those unfamiliar with that other bit of "hardware" — as long as it is made of teak or maple — the Wooden Spoon is unceremoniously awarded to the MLS team that finishes the regular season with the worst record. The tradition of the award transcends soccer and for the better part of the nineteenth century was the name for the recognition given annually to the University of Cambridge graduate with the lowest final exam scores. In MLS, the first spoon was awarded in 2008 — fittingly bestowed upon the expansion Quakes — and was retroactively assigned to all the last place teams since the league’s inception in 1996.
Looking at the last 15 season, the San Jose Earthquakes/Clash lay claim to the top of the overall Wooden Spoon leaderboard, amassing an impressive total of three trophies. Up next are the New York Red Bulls/Metrostars and DC United with two apiece. The Quakes’ opponent this weekend has one. That the Earthquakes also possess two MLS Cups in their trophy case somewhat makes up for the trio of wooden prizes.
So back to the idea that tonight’s match is "meaningless" — can that really be the case when such an ignominious honor is potentially up for grabs? While the Vancouver Whitcaps sits in pole position to capture this season’s Wooden Spoon, both the Quakes and the Revs are very much alive in the race for last place. By virtue of the ‘Caps victory over Real Salt Lake on Thursday, the Earthquakes sit just seven points ahead of the Canadian expansion team in the overall MLS standings — the Revolution only two points. If either clubs fails to produce sufficient points in their last matches, the engravers may need to hold off on declaring Vancouver the winner.
Now nobody associated with either club will acknowledge that the Wooden Spoon even exists — you won’t find any of the Quakes’ three awards prominently displayed at company headquarters — but in a similar fashion to the origins of the Supporters Shield, fan generated awards can and do matter to those that fill MLS stadium across the continent. That the Earthquakes are still mathematically alive to capture their unprecedented fourth spoon this season may not result in torch-and-pitchfork laden marches on Buck Shaw Stadium, it doesn’t mean Quakes supporters are willing to watch their team pack it in for the rest of 2011.
A road victory at Gillette Stadium tonight will ensure that the Quakes will finish no lower than 16th in the final MLS table, and that another spoon will not find its way to San Jose. With that much importance attached to tonight’s result, how could anyone possibly imagine that what awaits can be considered a meaningless game?